I'd never seen a satellite tracking device before, so when one bobbed slowly up to me as I stood waist-deep in the Myakka River, it took a minute to figure out what it was. The giveaway was the little antenna on the top.
For a high-tech contraption, it didn't look like much, just a shiny blue-and-white cylinder about five inches in diameter and a foot-and-a-half long. It floated idly in the sluggish current, tethered to a big manatee. Or so I hoped-I couldn't tell; the water was opaque. The idea that such a creature was lurking only a few feet away was both tremendously exciting and a little spooky.
Then-almost within arm's reach-it surfaced for a quick breath. Like many if not most Florida manatees, it had a cuneiform pattern of scars on its back, the result of a collision with a motorboat. I followed in my canoe as it meandered upstream. At a bend in the river it turned to check me out, and for a few moments we circled each other warily, partners in a primal river dance. Then I leaned out too far to snap a photo-and fell in. Everything, including the camera, got a good dunking.
In nature photography, that's just the price of doing business. But it did make it a bit tougher to do the real work that day, which was to document some choice properties newly acquired through ESLPP, Sarasota County's Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program.
ESLPP was created by a tax referendum in 1999. Voters approved it by 67 percent, a remarkable consensus. To local government, the vote was a mandate to purchase and preserve what remained of the county's precious wild lands, particularly those in and around the Myakka River watershed.
After the referendum passed, the county hired the Nature Conservancy to finesse contract negotiations. So far, 17 parcels, roughly 5,000 acres, have been acquired, with about 70-almost 40,000 acres-still to go. The acquisitions include Curry Creek, Red Bug Slough, Rocky Ford and Manasota Scrub, names long familiar to local environmentalists. The properties range in size from barely bigger than a city lot to thousands of acres. Several were purchased with matching funds from the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the Florida Communities Trust. Others were donated. To date, all of the lands purchased under ESLPP were acquired for less than their appraised value.
There are two ways an ESLPP property can be purchased: It can be bought outright, or the owner can sell a "conservation easement," allowing the county to control how the property is used. Owners of farms and ranches often choose the latter option, so they can retain physical possession of the land.
So how does a site qualify for consideration? Potential ESLPP purchases are evaluated by the six-member Environmentally Sensitive Lands Oversight Committee, or ESLOC. The committee judges a site by five criteria, including its overall quality, connectivity to other sites, long-term manageability, water resources, and the presence (or potential presence) of scarce ecosystems and endangered species. Each criterion is assigned a value of one to four, with one as the highest possible rating. Once a site is selected, appraisals, surveys and title work are orchestrated through the office of Lincoln Borrman, the Nature Conservancy's Protection Program manager for Southwest Florida, and ESLPP's acquisition agent.
ESLPP lands provide habitat for a tremendous variety of threatened and endangered species. Lemon Bay Preserve boasts burrowing owls, indigo snakes and a nesting bald eagle. Manatees by the dozens winter at an ESLPP site called Warm Mineral Springs Creek. Many parcels are potential territory for scrub jays and red cockaded woodpeckers. And recently, thanks to a motion-sensing camera, biologists have confirmed the presence of another creature long rumored to prowl the wilderness in and around the Carlton Reserve-a shadowy, fabulously rare feline, a Florida panther-the Holy Grail, you might say, of endangered North American mammals.
When Debbie Blanco got her film back from WalMart, she could hardly believe her eyes. "I was still in the store, standing at the counter, and I literally couldn't breathe," she remembers. Debbie is with the county's Environmental Services Department; the film was from a camera she'd installed on a trail in the Carlton Reserve, near a site called Rocky Ford. Among the shots of raccoons, deer and mountain bikes were four flashlit photographs of a Florida panther.
Unlike the other wildlife immortalized by Debbie's camera, the big cat had lingered for several minutes, long enough to trigger the device repeatedly.
A trained biologist, Debbie saw right away that this was indeed a true Florida panther, one of the world's most endangered creatures. It had all the physical characteristics unique to that subspecies, from the exaggerated nasal arch to white flecks on its back. Researchers had long suspected that at least one panther roamed the Myakka River corridor. But panthers are elusive and nocturnal; and, until now, the evidence of its presence had been wholly anecdotal. Now they had proof.
You won't find any panthers at Lemon Bay Preserve, an ESLPP site just east of Venice. That's Florida scrub jay country-or it soon will be, if Dr. Robert Kluson has his way.
Kluson, an ESLPP land manager, and I paid Lemon Bay a visit, by way of the Intracoastal; traveling with us was John Sarcosi, owner of Osprey Kayak Tours. Leaving John's motorboat nestled in the mangroves, we entered a wilderness in transition, scarred by heavy equipment and bisected with new dirt roads. Even to an untrained eye, big changes were afoot.
"When we start out, we have to remove exotics, do some roller chopping, and put in roads and firebreaks," Kluson explained. "Initially, the place looks like a disaster area. Then-over time-we can manage the lands in ways that are more aesthetically pleasing. It's like plastic surgery. At first, the patient looks just terrible. But given time and a little healing, the patient looks much better."
As a land manager, Kluson wears a lot of hats. He supervises the removal of invasive plants like Brazilian pepper and Australian pine, directs hydrologic restorations, and, along with Debbie Blanco, prescribes and regulates new fire regimes. (After a blaze in the Carlton Reserve got completely out of hand last year, Sarasota County ended the practice of hiring independent contractors to carry out controlled burns. Now all such fires are conducted by trained county personnel, and no fire is set that can't be shut down in an hour.) Kluson also holds public meetings to ensure that interested parties remain informed and have direct input on Lemon Bay Preserve as well as other ESLPP projects.
We paused at a spot where bulldozers had peeled back the palmettos, creating a circular patch of barren ground. To me it was just an empty clearing, but to Kluson, it was a scrub jay field of dreams.
Apparently, when it comes to choosing a neighborhood, scrub jays are incredibly picky. They need trees, preferably oaks, not too many, and not too tall. They also need patches of bare, sandy soil in which to bury acorns, a favorite snack. It's hoped the jays will find the circular clearings ideal cache sites, and set up light housekeeping nearby.
Leaving Lemon Bay Preserve, we made our way back up the Intracoastal, pausing to photograph an active osprey nest on a channel marker. Such nests are a common sight along the length of the waterway.
On another day and at another Myakka ESLPP site, upstream from North River Road, I met some birds of a different feather. It was late in the morning when I set out by canoe from Rocky Ford, in the Carlton Reserve. The air was hot and still, and despite recent rains the current was molasses-slow. I drifted downstream, past low deltas and sandy, head-high bluffs, over a riverbed laced with fossils. The banks were lined with pines and live oaks, sabal palms and saw palmettos, shimmering in the heat. Aside from that, nothing much stirred. Turtles basked on water-worn stumps, legs extended, toes splayed. Kingfishers peeked from their muddy dens. On the bow, a heat-stunned dragonfly perched like a tiny figurehead.
Suddenly I heard a weird ruckus-a woofing and whooping and flapping and flopping-coming from a thicket on the bank. Only one thing makes that kind of commotion: a passel of hungry vultures. Plainly, something had attracted them. Something big. Something dead.
It was a 'gator, a nine-footer at least. As Monty Python might've said, it was "bleedin' demised." Or, as naturalists say, it was "transforming," from alligator energy to vulture energy. Molecules that coasted on currents of water would soon glide on currents of air. Not such a bad fate, really.
I drifted closer, but the vultures didn't budge. Pretty soon I was above the submerged tail. The brashest-or hungriest-birds still ignored me, eagerly probing the 'gator's eye sockets and nostrils, looking for chinks in the armor. I snapped a few photos, then-feeling a little queasy-pushed off and continued downstream.
Shortly thereafter I was joined by a friend. It was the manatee from the North River Road site, still trailing his transmitter. This time he was plainly visible, hovering placidly just below the surface while a couple of foot-long plecostomus catfish-exotic escapees from the aquarium trade-grazed like cattle on the algae on his back.
Before heading back, I hauled up on the bank for a look around. To the north and east lay Myakka River State Park; to the southeast, the Carlton Reserve. A sandy trail led through pine flatwoods, oak hammocks and seasonal wetlands. Even at noon, wildlife was abundant. A trio of startled deer, two does and a buck, clattered through the dense palmettos. A soft-shelled turtle, a big female, sat patiently for a portrait before plodding on. Skittish armadillos started at the least sound, then forgot all about it, as armadillos do. Maybe the panther was out there, too, snoozing in the shade.
A few days later, by helicopter this time, I toured the area with Kluson. We departed from the Carlton Reserve, circling North River Road and Deer Prairie Slough. Five hundred feet below, the Myakka snaked among hammocks and groves, its sinuous curves contrasting sharply with the dull geometry of bordering roads and fields. Then we swung east, towards Lemon Bay, soaring high over wetlands, ranchlands and big 'gators, basking in blank, black ponds.
Helicopters are fun, but they can be hard on the stomach. When we had to turn back-around the time I popped my third Dramamine-I wasn't exactly inconsolable. It was a brief flight, but long enough to get an overview, so to speak, of what the program's all about, and what people such as Robert Kluson, Lincoln Borrman and Debbie Blanco-among many others-are trying to accomplish.
The ESLPP sites are unique, irreplaceable and often achingly beautiful. Today, thanks to the combined efforts of the county and the Nature Conservancy, they're open and accessible to all-no tickets, no waiting, and parking is never a problem. If they're a little dangerous sometimes, we should be glad of it and value them all the more. To quote Rob Patten, Environmental Services Executive Director: "ESLPP is a testament to the foresight and commitment of Sarasota's residents. The full benefit of sensitive lands purchases today won't be appreciated for another 30 to 50 years. This is a gift for our children and grandchildren that we can all enjoy now."